Greece’s oldest club, founded during the later stages of the Ottoman Empire, now finds itself in dire straits.
Like many a fallen giant, the story of Panionios is depressingly familiar; financial mismanagement, incompetence, asset-stripping and outright corruption are just some of the many accusations levelled at the club’s numerous former owners and rivals.
Paniόnios Gymnastikόs Sýllogos Smýrnis Football Club, or Panionios F.C., as it is more commonly known, was founded in 1890 in the city of Izmir, modern day Turkey.
Amid the fallout of the Greco-Turkish war of 1919-1922, the club was relocated to Athens, in a district known as New Izmir.
Despite not being held in the same regard as the titans of Greek football, such as Olympiacos, Panathinaikos and AEK Athens, Panionios’ history has afforded it a certain prestige, with its support-base far greater than the 11,700 seat capacity of the Nea Smyrni Stadium would suggest.
The club has enjoyed some moderate success on the pitch, too, earning two Greek Cups (and four further final appearances).
As recently as the 2017-2018 season, the club was competing in a Europa League qualifier against Israel’s Maccabi Tel-Aviv, having finished in fifth place in Greece’s Super League the previous season. Although they lost to Maccabi, Panionios seemed to be well-placed for another push the following year.
Now, two seasons later, the club is in the fourth tier of Greek football.
Despite their relative success on the pitch, behind the scenes Panionios had been in crisis for some time and had amassed crippling debts.
The debt was estimated to be over eight million euros in total, with five million owed to the Greek government and three million to current and former players and staff.
With Panionios unable to pay the debt, Greece’s football authorities felt they had little choice but to expel the club from the professional ranks, to the amateur Gamma Ethniki.
Quite how the club found itself in such a position is a topic of some debate, with many fans split between blaming incompetence and corruption.
George Bitsikokos, the current spokesperson for the club’s new administration, is candid in his assessment: “This was the result of seven years of mismanagement.”
Andreas Mogridge is a lifelong Panionios fan and handles communication for the Panionios ultras group Panthers Club 1983. He believes there is more to the situation than just mismanagement.
“Our owners were begging for money,” posits Mogridge, “and the big clubs [took] advantage.”
Much of Mogridge’s ire is directed towards Olympiacos, Greece’s most successful club. Listening to Mogridge speak, one gets the impression that he views the winners of 45 Greek league titles as operating more like a cartel than a football club.
“Olympiacos can hurt you politically. [They] control the referees and control a lot of people in the [Greek] football association.”
He further explains that the feeling amongst fans is that Olympiacos strong-armed Panionios into selling them their most valuable players at a discount when they were deep in the financial quagmire, rather than seek bids from Olympiacos’ league rivals.
Apparently powerless to resist, Panionios’ board acquiesced. “You don’t really mess with [Olympiacos]. Because if you mess with them, they’ll mess with you.”
Such claims are difficult to verify, with the transfer-fees of the four players who have moved from Panionios to Olympiacos in the last two seasons only rumoured.
For their part, representatives of Olympiacos have not responded to attempts to contact them to clarify.
Despite the financial hardship and relegation suffered by the club, there are signs that Panionios may reclaim what their fans perceive to be their rightful place amongst Greece’s elite.
Although they must remain in the fourth tier for at least two years (a stipulation of the Greek FA’s judgement), performances on the pitch have been positive.
34-year-old Greek international defender Giannis Kontoes has returned to the club where he made his name to captain the now-amateur side, managed by last season’s under-19s coach Dimitriοs Koropoulis.
With almost every player aged 21 or younger, Kontoes’ experience and leadership seems to have had an effect. Panionios won all three of their games before the league was suspended in November due to the worsening COVID-19 outbreak.
The club’s financial position, however, may prove more difficult to rectify.
Another of the Panionios academy’s most successful exports, former Greek international and Olympiacos captain Giannis Maniatis, has taken over much of the club’s administration. However, with almost the entire debt still to be paid, the financial situation remains desperate,
In an act of solidarity with their club, many of the club’s ultras and fans have retained season tickets in order to patch the hole blasted in their revenue by the global pandemic.
Support has been found abroad, too, in the shape of Crystal Palace ultras group the Holmesdale Fanatics. The Panthers and Fanatics have had a close relationship since the Fanatics’ founding in 2005.
Besides blue-and-red kits, the two groups share an anti-fascist and socially active ideology, and before COVID-19 wreaked havoc upon international travel, Panthers and Fanatics would organise numerous fan-exchanges.
Mogridge is eager to share his gratitude to the Fanatics, who have provided financial help to the club through fundraising activities and shirt sales.
— Chrissy Palace (@ChrissyPalace) September 16, 2018
Despite the many issues faced by the club, there is a guarded sense of optimism that the relegation presents a chance for a fresh start.
The Panthers believe that relegation should give the fans more control over the club in the future.
According to Mogridge, when the time comes to return to the professional leagues the fans will be in a strong position to choose the best administration for the football team.
Bitsikokos shares this sentiment: “We must return to the Greek SuperLeague. We want to come back, but it has to be the right way.”